Connecting the customer journey between airports and airlines

Travellers experience a consolidation of what multiple travel brands provide. Whether from airlines, the airport or other entities, the customer experience is viewed as one. If a part of that experience is bad, it carries through to the traveller’s perception of all the players involved in their journey.

How much of the Stansted experience, for example, is down to the airport or the carriers? Commonly airlines hold a tight grip on customer data and don't share it with airports. Yet there is an opportunity to share with mutual benefit.

We recently wrote about the dogfight between brands to own the traveller and the need for airlines to focus on customer experience to win share of spend. Airports are equally under pressure, with the proportion of non-aeronautical income from shops, restaurants, parking and car rental falling in recent years, according to global airport trade body ACI World.

A traveller’s experience is viewed in its entirety and is not necessarily attributed to specific brands. This means that a poor airport experience can lead to a negative perception of an airline and vice versa. How can brands work together to improve the experience throughout the customer journey?

There are a number of opportunities where airports and airlines can join forces to improve the overall experience for the customer. Research by DKMA has found that satisfied passengers are likely to spend 10% more time at the airport and are twice as likely to shop.

Deputy CEO for Groupe ADP, which runs Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, says “If we improve customer experience, we will improve all economic models.”

In reality, the exciting build-up to a holiday is often dampened by a stressful or tedious experience at the airport pre-departure. The boarding and in-flight experience has lost the glamour and allure of yesteryear. And the first impressions of arriving at your holiday destination are often fraught with anxiety, with further waiting and lack of clear information.


Emotional state of passengers throughout the in-airport experience today and how it could be transformed through a unified digital platform.

To illustrate this, we’ve chosen two specific areas where small improvements to the customer experience could have a significant commercial benefit for both airports and airlines.

Ryanair has famously claimed that it expects to be able to sell free flights in the future, with the airline making money from a share in airport revenues. If Ryanair could negotiate such an arrangement, you can bet they would do everything they could to encourage more airport spend.

Furthermore, any airline that can demonstrate greater spend by passengers at the airport is also going to have the edge when negotiating ground rates.

Opportunity 1: Incentives for early arrival

Everyone checking in at the same time, and at the last minute, causes congestion, delays, a lot of queuing and a squeezed ‘golden hour’ of commercial opportunity for airport retail. People often barely have time to grab a coffee between clearing security and the long walk to join the next queue at the gate.

What if we could encourage passengers into the airport earlier, to make the time they do spend in the airport more purposeful and rewarding – and to make it simpler for people to be more efficient with their time?

If incentives were triggered and disseminated digitally through a single airport or airline smartphone app, they could be personalised, time-based and location tracked to ensure optimal relevance and attribution.

Incentives could be as simple as (digital) coupons such as free drinks or retail discounts. Or they could be tied directly to enhancing the in-airport experience, providing additional reasons to get there early. For example, access to exclusive areas of the departure lounge, workspaces, high speed WIFI and in-airport entertainment – such as the latest movies for your phone, which you can download and continue watching on your flight.

Incentives could be tiered so that the earlier you arrive, the greater the value of the reward you get. Your phone’s GPS could verify when you arrive to trigger the correct incentive.

If the airport experience were genuinely more positive and productive, more people would be encouraged to get there early, benefitting airports and airlines at the same time.

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An example of an arrive-early incentive is in football. A Great State client, Aston Villa, rewards ticket holders with extra ‘Pride Rewards’ points for getting to Villa Park stadium more than an hour before Kick Off. Early arriving fans get congestion-free entry and a relaxing beer before the game. The benefits to the club in managing people flows and growing retail sales are clear.

Opportunity 2: Dynamic in-airport upgrades and services

Travellers are encouraged to pay for various add-ons at the point of booking a flight or holiday, such as speedy boarding or lounge access, which end up making the overall cost of a trip feel inflated. Similar promotions bombard customers throughout the build up to their holiday when consumers are most price sensitive.

However, if prompted at the point of frustration (or when in the holiday spirit) at the airport itself and activated with a simple tap of the screen, the costs would be perceived as less significant and have a more direct impact on alleviating pain or ‘treating yourself’.

Our view is that airlines and airports should offer in-airport personalised upgrades and other connected services through a unified smartphone app experience with low friction payments.

Some such in-airport services already exist but not always through an app, and certainly not all through a single app, making purchases long winded with too much friction. There is a clear opportunity for airlines and airports to provide such a service and for existing technology platforms to make APIs available so that a unified experience is possible.

Some airports already offer Fast Track security upgrades to all for a fee, not just first and business class passengers, but there’s still too much friction in the in-airport point of purchase – for example having to use a kiosk and credit card rather than your phone or having to book through the web the day before.

Deliveroo is already available at Dubai airport for passengers to order from their favourite restaurants and get delivery straight to boarding gates. But what if you still want to have a dine-in experience and don’t have time to wait? Airports and airlines could offer a pre-order service before you get through security to reduce waiting time on the other side.

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Deliveroo, ready for your order at Dubai airport

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Seatfrog allows passengers to bid for upgrades on their phone right up to departure, making use of an otherwise empty premium inventory.

The binary choice of paying for access to an executive airport lounge, or waiting in a crowded departures hall, misses out on opportunities for tiered access to spaces or amenities. Many of us would happily pay a few pounds to get the equivalent of a ‘premium economy’ experience at the airport but wouldn’t fork out ten times as much for access to an executive lounge. Such an experience may include a decent workspace with desks, power and soft drinks, or sofas with big screens, games consoles and ways to keep kids entertained.

Gyms are already starting to open in airports. Is there room for more ‘time-based’ activities that you could activate via an app depending on how long until your flight – for example a 30-minute massage, 20-minute meditation or a haircut?

One major frustration of the airport experience is having to ditch all your liquids before you go through security. This is especially limiting for those with infants requiring baby milk. You can pre-order at most airports to collect in a store once through security, but this still requires more queuing and a logistics challenge for retailers. What if you could collect at an airside Amazon-style locker instead? You could pre-order all your airport shopping (including liquids) and simply pick up in an instant.

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Amazon lockers already exist at Birmingham airport, but not after security.

Baggage is another major source of anxiety at the airport. Passengers look longingly at their hold bags as they disappear on the conveyor belt, not knowing what will happen to them and whether they will make it safely to the other side. The prospect of your hand luggage having to go in the hold too is something people really aren’t happy with. Airlines try the volunteer option but usually have to resort to mandating it. Smart, connected luggage options give airlines a clear opportunity to stand out and reduce anxiety by giving people clear updates on the status and location of their bags.

Improving the experience, driving revenue

All of these examples show how small changes to the travel experience can add significant value to the customer. Combining a number of these together in a unified smartphone app would enable both airports and airlines to earn greater revenue per passenger, better customer satisfaction and ultimately greater customer loyalty.

Airlines that implement such experiences will be in a much stronger position to negotiate better ground rates with airports – a significant cost that affects an airline’s margins and competitive pricing.

Airports would not only improve the spend per passenger but the data and ownership they have on people passing through their terminals. We know through our direct experience that some airports have data on less than 20% of their passengers.

The air travel market is growing, yet it’s highly competitive and low-margin. Airlines and airports can work together to deliver a standout customer experience, drive greater market share and open up new revenue streams.

A similar situation is also emerging in accommodation. The aggregators and technology platforms like and Airbnb are owning more data than hotels and other accommodation providers.

There is an opportunity for data and transactional service sharing in this sector too. For example, what if you could order and pay for everything on your room via a single smartphone app, and use it as your room key too?

This may benefit small accommodation providers to offer digitised, mobile services without having to build everything themselves. And it would benefit larger chains too. Those that support an open data approach for third parties to connect to rather than expecting guests to use a different app for every chain, would attract a wider pool of digitally-demanding consumers. Higher adoption of a transactional digital service throughout a traveller’s stay would undoubtedly grow spend per customer.

Great State help brands in all sectors achieve greater loyalty by thinking meaningfully about the entire customer experience.

Join us for a breakfast debate

We’re hosting the next in our series of lively breakfast debates on June 14. Please join us and a panel of brand leaders to discuss exactly what leisure travel companies need to do to keep hold of more traveller attention, spend and data.